I recently got rid of cable. Well, as much as I can (thanks a lot, Comcast). Anyway, the fact that I have less than 15 channels to choose from usually means that I’m not watching broadcast television, preferring to watch Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and so on. What does this mean? This means that I rarely see commercials or movie trailers unless I actively search for them.
What I did sign up for, though, is AMC A-List, which more or less means I need to see two movies a month in theaters or else I’m pissing money away. So when I found myself with a free weekend, I scanned the app to see what movies were playing. Nothing really seemed all that appealing, but I stumbled upon Hell Fest, which happened to be opening this weekend. I gave the trailer a shot and then when I saw Tony Todd in it, I made the decision to see it this weekend.
Hell Fest is a fantastic concept, both for a movie and an actual amusement park. I’d totally go to Hell Fest if it were a real place. I mean, Six Flags does have its Fright Fest month, but an entire amusement park devoted to a horror theme… yeah, I’m fully on board with that.
As for the film, Hell Fest has a lot going for it: a cool concept, incredible set design, and impressive production values, but ultimately the film disappoints in execution of its fairly derivative plot. There’s an alternate universe somewhere that takes what this film does right and knocks it out of the park with its story and its characters. This one, unfortunately, plays it very safe.
The film revolves around Natalie (Amy Forsyth) and her group of friends as they attend Hell Fest: the premiere horror-themed traveling amusement park. It’s essentially a series of haunted houses, with varying degrees of difficulty. Natalie is joined by her childhood best friend, Brooke, Brooke’s roommate Taylor, and Quinn, Asher, and Gavin, the guys of the group that round out the sextet.
Natalie and Brooke have started to drift apart, I guess, as they’ve gotten older and have gotten busier with college and boyfriends and all that other stuff that gets in the way. You know: life. In the real world, true friends can go days, weeks, months, or even years without talking in person and then can pick up like they had seen each other yesterday. In movies, this time apart is a contrived place for drama. It doesn’t help the situation that there’s some tension between Natalie and Taylor, perhaps two-way jealousy for one having a long history with Brooke and the other being closer to her currently, at least in proximity. This is the sort of thing that, I guess, plague the close friendships of girls in college. The film spends a good amount of the beginning regarding this tension, but it doesn’t really wind up playing out much elsewhere.
Additionally, there’s a budding romance between Natalie and Gavin, which, I guess, is another place for some dramatic tension. Both are reasonably attractive and available, but they hum and haw at each other for no real reason, except for the script says it should be awkward. Everyone else in the group want them to go find a shady spot to fuck like a couple of college kids, but for some reason, these two just can’t work up to that level. In real life, these two would’ve seen each other’s privates via Snapchat already. But I digress.
The group progresses through the park, going in and out of all the different haunted houses until one of the haunted houses ends with a very real-looking murder of a young woman, that takes place right in front of Natalie. The event rubs her the wrong way, and it doesn’t help that the masked killer, whom she thinks is just a performer, starts to follow the group. It’s not long before Natalie, and the rest of the group, realize that this scare might actually be real.
There are a few things to admire about Hell Fest. For one, the concept is pretty great. The whole idea that the murderer is able to commit his heinous acts in public under the guise of a realistic performance is pretty genius and the setting of a horror-themed amusement park just adds to the cool factor in this one. I would’ve been all about a place like this when I was a kid. You know, before I became an adult and couldn’t imagine spending that amount of time in a crowded park without having a claustrophobia-induced panic attack.
Additionally, I’m impressed with how great the art direction looks and how populated this film feels. As someone that works in some level of production, I can appreciate the look of the park and the costumes of its performers, as well as the amount of extras this film seemed to get on a $5.5 production budget (via BoxOfficeMojo). On such a small budget, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a few places where the film had cut corners in its production, but it actually seems like they did a pretty excellent job of stretching a dollar.
Unfortunately, while this film isn’t exactly a waste of time, it never has the ambition to become a particularly memorable film. Story-wise, it plays it incredibly safe. Outside of a surprising ordering of certain deaths in the film, this is a pretty paint-by-numbers slasher film. A few of the kills offer decent gore, but then, some of the kills get dispatched in rapid, uninspiring succession, and just makes the film feel uneven or rushed. The best slasher flick allows each of the kills to breathe on their own; there’s always that level of foreplay that happens right before Freddy, Jason, or Michael Myers finally puts one of their victims out of their misery. Here, at least one of the kills occurs so quickly that it makes the whole existence of the character completely irrelevant. The character has no discernible arc, and has maybe a handful of lines; they’re completely inconsequential. It’s okay for slasher movie characters to be disposable, but to not have an actual point in the film is unforgivable; it’s obvious they’re just there to up the kill count.
What could be worse than having a character that has no point in the story? How about a character that you’re kind of rooting for to die? Such is the unfortunate case of Taylor, Brooke’s current roommate. Brooke is the one person that seems to be having the absolute best time at the park, but because of this, she also seems to be the one person that’s above it all. It’s not fun for me, an audience member, to watch one character, as the Brits would say, take the piss out of the park the entire time. Isn’t this park supposed to be terrifying? I don’t need her jumping out of her skin at every turn, but having her crack wise at the attractions has the opposite effect that the filmmakers should be trying to achieve. If I’m supposed to believe that this is the greatest horror-themed amusement park, then why is one of your characters making dick jokes through the entire park?
Hell Fest has some things going for it, none of which are its fairly ordinary story. I wasn’t expecting something to redefine the genre, but I was kind of hoping for something that earned its pretty excellent concept and the incredible work by the art department. It’s watchable, but it might also be a film that you forget about come next Halloween.
Oh, and there’s not nearly enough Tony Todd in this.
Overall Rating: 6 out of 10